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Breaking-up is hard to do

By Arti Sharma - posted Wednesday, 19 April 2006

The Squid and the Whale, a new independent film, shows the nightmare that divorce can be for many couples and their children.

Caught up in a battle over children, property and money, it doesn't take much to send a separation spiralling into a series of ugly confrontations, ending in a messy divorce.

The Federal Government hopes to change this: it wants to put children first and discourage couples from reverting to lawyers.


It plans to spend $400 million changing the way family law works in Australia. Under the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Bill 2005, the government would introduce both compulsory parenting plans and compulsory dispute resolution for all separating couples with disputes over children, before they can proceed to court.

Putting children first is a great idea, but making dispute resolution compulsory isn't. Compulsory dispute resolution will not stop couples from using lawyers.

A British trial of a similar scheme in the late 1990s didn't work. The compulsory sessions not only increased the number of couples who wanted legal advice, it had no effect on the divorce rate or the number of cases that were resolved out of court. Only 7 per cent of attendees opted to continue beyond the compulsory hours before reverting to the courts, and 39 per cent indicated that they were more likely to see a solicitor.

On the other hand, compulsory parenting plans are an excellent way of making parents take responsibility for their children's welfare. But the plan parents arrange should be left to them. Forcing couples into dispute resolution will be counterproductive - the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 95 per cent don't need it.

The centrepiece of the government's reforms is a national network of 65 new Family Relationship Centres (FRCs), the first 15 of which are due to be ready by July. These centres are designed to address the needs of couples at all stages of their relationships, particularly those who are separating or seeking divorce.

All divorcing couples with children will be encouraged to use these centres to develop parenting plans before attending the Family Court.


But Australia already has a large and established network of not-for-profit organisations that provide the same services that FRCs will: counselling, mediation, children's services, legal referral and general advice on relationships. Many already receive financial assistance under the government's Family Relationship Services Program, which was set up in the 1960s.

This program encourages positive family relationships by providing early prevention and intervention services, as well as post-separation services. More than 63 community organisations contribute to the FRSP.

So why is the government going to set up Family Relationship Centres to duplicate existing services?

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First published in The Courier-Mail on April 12, 2006. The full paper is available at the Centre for Independent Studies website (pdf file 121KB).

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About the Author

Arti Sharma is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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